On May 10, 2021, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a lawsuit filed by the wife of a construction worker against his employer after he allegedly contracted COVID-19 at his workplace and transmitted it to her. The wife’s claim was novel in that it alleged her husband’s employer owed her, a nonemployee, a duty to keep her safe from COVID-19.
The case, Kuciemba v. Victory Woodworks, Inc., was filed in December 2020. According to court filings, Robert Kuciemba began working for Victory Woodworks, Inc., at a construction site in San Francisco in May 2020. Corby Kuciemba, Robert Kuciemba’s wife, claimed that the company, in July 2020, knew that employees from one of its jobsites had tested positive for COVID-19, but, instead of directing those employees to quarantine, assigned them to her husband’s worksite. Kuciemba alleged that her husband contracted COVID-19 as a result and spread it to her.
After a hearing in February 2021, the judge dismissed Kuciemba’s initial complaint, finding that her claims stemmed from her husband’s work-related injury and were barred under California’s workers’ compensation law. The judge, however, allowed Kuciemba to amend her allegations, granting her leave to file an amended complaint.
The judge dismissed Kuciemba’s amended complaint on May 10, 2021, without leave to amend, for three reasons: (1) Kuciemba’s claims against Victory Woodworks that she had contracted COVID-19 “through direct contact with” her husband were “barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of California’s workers’ compensation statutes”; (2) her allegations that she “contracted COVID-19 ‘indirectly through fomites such as [her husband’s] clothing’” failed to plead a plausible claim; and (3) to the extent not otherwise barred, her claims were “subject to dismissal for the reason that [Victory Woodworks’s] duty to provide a safe workplace to its employees does not extend to nonemployees who … contract a viral infection away from those premises.”
The judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit, if not appealed successfully, could set an example for other courts presently grappling with the same issue or confronted with it in the future under state workers’ compensation laws similar to California’s: whether an employer is responsible for COVID-19 contracted by its employees’ relatives as a result of the employees’ work-related contraction of COVID-19.
Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic and will post updates in the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.